Saturday, December 18, 2010

Help your child get in the spirit of giving with salt dough ornaments

Asking your children to make something special for loved ones on the holidays is something I consider necessary.  With so many gifts coming their way, it's always nice for them to reciprocate.  Plus, I think little ones get a big kick out of the "ooo-ing" and "ahh-ing" that inevitably comes tumbling out of the mouths of relatives. 

These salt dough ornaments are something that your child will love to make and to give.  The dough is also great for just using like play-doh, too, if you aren't in the mood to go all the way with this activity.  This recipe comes from PaintCutPaste, one of my favorite go-to blogs for crafty ideas.

Salt Dough
4 cups flout
1 cup iodized salt
1.75 cups warm water
Mix and knead for 10 minutes

Roll out your dough on a floured surface. 

 Use cookie cutters to make shapes.
Use a straw to poke holes for your string.
Bake at 300 degrees for 1 hour.

Let them cool on a wire rack for 12-24 hours.
When ready, use a water-based paint like tempera or acrylic to decorate.
I like to use glitter and stickers to make them look even fancier.

There is just something so special about a child's artistic touch, isn't there? 

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Sand from the moon puts me over the moon

I have a love/hate relationship with Moon Sand.  For those of you who haven't encountered this strange substance, it feels like sand with some properties of play-doh.  Unlike the real deal, you can mold Moon Sand without adding water.  Although it doesn't quite hold a sturdy shape (it is sand, after all), little ones love to roll it into balls, cut out shapes and use their imagination to make all sorts of creations.  It also doesn't dry out which gives it a one-up over play-doh in my book.

It is for all the above reasons that I love Moon Sand.  I do find myself cursing Moon Sand once play is over.  Bringing sand into your home leads to a mess - on the table, on the floor, in my child's case - in the hair, down the shirt... you get the picture.  But, I have to remind my anal-retentive tendencies that this is "messy" play.  It's okay to get the house messy and the child messy.  It's easy enough to clean-up and the fun your child will have makes it all worth it.  (Remind yourself of this when you find sand in your child's eyebrows.)

The Moon Sand people make a plethora of sets to choose from.  They all come with a plastic sheet to make clean-up easier and, depending on the set, sometimes even an inflatable tray with raised sides to assist with the mess.  The sets are nice because they lend to some symbolic play, but with a free form material like this your children will love letting their creativity show.

Here are some of my favorite sets:

For a budding Bob the Builder -
Moon Sand Demolition Kit

For a future Julia Child -

For the aspiring Lancelot or Guinevere -

You can also just buy the Moon Sand and use your own sand toys that are taking a break in storage for the summer. 

Here is a sand toy set that I had at home that makes ice cream cones.  Your little ones will love bringing the beach indoors on a cold winter day!

I, of course, encourage you to get in on the fun and join your child in some messy play.  I, frankly, find some catharsis in playing with sand.

If your child has any tactile defensiveness, this is a wonderful activity to help ease your child into a new tactile experience without the unpredictability of sand from the beach.  There are no surprises with Moon Sand and what better way to support your child in, what is to them a scary tactile experience, by doing it with them? 

Thursday, December 2, 2010

2 serious links and 1 seriously fun blog

Since starting this blog I have been forwarded a ton of articles and links which I completely appreciate and adore.  Here are a few things that I received this week:

The first is an article on how MRIs are being used to diagnose children with autism.  In working with many children with autism and their families over the years, I can definitely see the use of MRIs for early detection thus leading to earlier treatment and better outcomes.  I know a number of families who did not receive treatment for their child for years because a pediatrician told them their child was just a bit delayed and it was nothing to worry about.  However, I do worry about the effect of an autism diagnosis on a family when it leads to parents and caregivers lowering expectations for a child.  This particularly concerns me because I see so many infants and toddlers with autistic-like symptoms who never need a true diagnosis beyond a developmental delay because, when given intense early intervention, they can completely reverse these symptoms and become typically functioning, bright and engaging children.  The most important part of this early intervention is coaching parents on how to address and treat the individual needs of their children.
Ah...I digress...  Here's the article so you can form your own opinions:

The second link comes from a mom with a son that has severe food allergies.  I've read a few articles on how children that have food allergies can be bullied in school because of it.  This article just provides some research, but two things are really troubling to me - 1) Children are bullying by throwing the allergen or touching the child with it.  Some kids even reported having their food contaminated.  Many of these children could die from exposure.  Super scary.  2) Teachers are doing the bullying. ?? Really??!!  Come on.

The third link is to a blog that a good friend turned me on to.  Meal times can be such a struggle.  Here is one mom's way of combating it by serving lunch in muffin tins and making bento boxes for her kids.  She goes a little overboard on the artistic end, but much of is easily reproduced in your kitchen and embraces the spirit of "play."  The novelty of it may even get your child to eat some veggies.
Bento Lunch

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Feel the quiet

I don't know about where you live, but here in Chicago it gets insanely dark insanely early once we are forced into submitting to the archaic daylight savings time.  Right now at 3:25PM, cars are driving by with their headlights on. 

At the end of the day, the dark tricks everyone into thinking they should be going to bed even though they aren't tired.  This is especially tricky for the little ones in our lives.  I know that I want my house to start winding down and getting a bit quieter once the sun goes down, but I have learned many times that an early bedtime can make for an extra early morning.

So, you may want to do an art activity, a puzzle, play camping or  do some yoga with your kids.  Here's an idea that I witnessed today at Glencoe Junior Kindergarten.  One of their amazing teachers had a small group of children laying on the rug in a darkened room.  The teacher had a chime a whole lot like this one, but any instrument or item that makes a resonating tone will do.

She asked the children to close their eyes and "feel" the sound, then open their eyes when they sensed the sound went away and they "felt the quiet."  She then asked the children to reflect on where they felt the sound in their bodies the most and also if they felt the sound of the chime or the "quiet" more in that body part.  Children were also asked to instruct their peers to "feel" the sound in specific body parts.

I love this activity!  It slows children down by asking them to concentrate on specific sounds and body parts while also promoting body awareness and the idea of tone in music.  I loved hearing the children say they felt the sound in their hair or their fingernails and watching them quietly listening for the sound of silence.

Younger children may not be able to last for very long with this game, but you could always modify it to ask children to close their eyes, be quiet and label all the sounds they hear.  You could even have a bag of "soundmakers" to ask them to try and decipher. 

Any more ideas for some "quiet" games?

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Say "thank you" with a mobile

No Monsters in My Bed posted a list of her favorite mom/dad blogs today.  I love checking out new blogs and came across a dad named Joel who has some amazing craft ideas to enjoy with your kids.  Made by Joel highlights a Mobile of Thanks to help you and your children celebrate Thanksgiving today. 

If you don't have to host any guests today or are really ahead of schedule with your cooking, a mobile is a pretty simple thing to whip up.  It would also look fab hanging about a Thanksgiving table.   I even think the best part might just be the hunt for the stick, frankly.  You don't have to get incredibly fancy - just use some construction paper, markers, glue sticks and even photos of people or things you are thankful for.  Thread is great for hanging your creations.  Your child may not be old enough to completely grasp the concept of being thankful, so just ask him to name his favorite things, people and his favorite things to do with Grandma, Grandpa, etc.  Then, simply write those things out or draw pictures of them, punch a hole, tie some string and hung it from the branch.

I'd post a picture of mine, but hanging mobiles are tricky things to take good pictures of and, if you haven't noticed, photography lessons would be something I'd be really thankful for.

Enjoy your children and one another today.  Get down on the floor and play today, too - it's one of the best ways to show your children how thankful you are for them.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Petite Picassos, Mini Monets, Wee Warhols

I don't know about you, but there is no way I can trust my three year old in an art museum.  I can just picture the look on the gallery guard's face as my little one runs full force, palms out ready to touch a Seurat, Degas or O'Keefe.

But, I love art and am eager to introduce it to my son without the use of creepy Baby Einstein DVDs.  So, I use my art coffee table books, scanner and a little patience to help him recreate the masterpieces of the great artists of our time.

Begin by letting your child pick out the painting they want to reproduce.  You can flip through an art book or go on a website.  Whatever the source, make sure you can print out the picture.  My son chose "Charing Cross Bridge" by Andre Derain.
I made a color copy, cut it out and taped it in the top corner of his easel.  I then challenged him to paint the same picture.  Your child may need some help of where to begin.  Start with the most concrete item in the painting.  For example, in the above painting, a good place to start would be with the bridge.  Then, help your child identify what colors they need, where on the paper they go, what kind of brush stroke to use, etc.
Some great vocabulary to use would be directional "top" "bottom" "edge" "corner" or descriptive "dark" "light" "soft" "mixed together". 

Your child may need a lot of structure and help with this or very little.  My guy needed a lot of assistance and patience from me.  If copying a painting like this is too hard for your little one, have your child copy something that you have painted.  You can even do it side by side.  Mom draws a circle - Son draws a circle  Mom makes a nose - Son makes a nose, etc.

Here is my son's finished Derain.  I'm pretty sure that without the original beside it, no one could decipher that this is a picture of a bridge, but that's not the point is it?  It's all about the process and our enjoyment together - not the product.

Great seasonal toy find

There is something about advent calendars that still excites even grown-up me.  The tiny doors with surprises inside combined with the delayed gratification are sure to delight your kids, too.  I'm sure it will be the first thing on their mind every morning until Christmas.

If you celebrate Christmas, pick up an advent calendar before December 1st.  You can find really cheap versions with chocolates inside or extravagant ones that become nativity scenes.

I just picked up Playmobil's version today.  It makes a Santa and animal scene in the woods.  It's really quite cute and gives your child a new, little item to play with each day while waiting for the big arrival of Santa on the 24th.

I also found it cheaper at Three Wishes Toys 'n More in Wilmette, IL for about $22.  They also have an online store.

Playmobil also makes other versions of Advent calendars that have ponies, unicorns, dragons, and, get this, even a "Police Christmas."  But, I think the Santa theme is a bit more apropos for the season, don't you?

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Toys for 3-24 month olds

I don't know about you, but finding good baby toys always seems to be a challenge for me.  As many of you know, I can't stand toys with lights and music that don't offer baby anything more than a button to push.  So, I have found a lovely collection of toys that will keep babies busy and playing.  I do need to preface this list with the fact that spoons, cups, gladware containers and pans still rank first on my list as the best toys around for little ones.

The high school French student in me loves these little guys called Chan Pie Gnons, a play on the french word "champignon" for mushroom.  These are fantastic teethers from the people who make Sophie the Giraffe.  Since every baby has Sophie, be a non-conformist and get a Chan Pie Gnon.

For shape sorting, check out this wooden house from Land of Nod. It's so much cooler than the classic plastic version.

I really love Plan Toys.  All of the toys are wooden and "green."  Here are some must-buys.

For a stuffed animal, this elephant is not only cute, but covered in silky tags. I've met so many babies who love to play with and rub their faces on these tags. I guess this company has too since they are called "Taggies."
My love for Melissa and Doug even carries over into the baby sector. The picnic basket is all the more darling when you put faces on the food.

Even though this is a toddler toy, I guarantee the child in your life will play with these instruments for much longer. This is a guaranteed baby pleaser. Plus, most toys from the Parents brand come with a free subscription to Parents magazine.

Here's another instrument that will stand the test of time. Anyone wanna polka?

For those that can sit up in the tub, this sensory toy is fantastic.
And finally, the coup de grace, keys and cups!

Any other suggestions?

Thursday, November 18, 2010

WHAT??!! The decline of picture books?

Check out this New York Times article that was referred to in the Cherry Preschool newsletter this month. 

It discusses how parents have decided to push their preschool and Kindergarten-age children into reading chapter books and e-books instead of sticking with the tried and true picture book.  Come on, folks!  Don't deny your  children the pleasure of the art and language of a picture book.  If your five year old can read chapter books, fantastic!  But, picture books still have a place and are just plain part of being a kid.

Here's the link:

I feel pretty, oh so pretty...

I can remember when both my grandmothers had standing, weekly appointments at the beauty shop.  They'd go in, get coifed and be ready for the weekend.  My Grandma Rose even wrapped her hair in toilet paper before bed so it wouldn't get smooshed. 

Times have certainly changed.  We moms barely have time to put on mascara, let alone make sure all our hairs are in place.  But, this doesn't mean that your kids won't love playing beauty shop.  And, yes, I said kids - meaning girls AND boys.  I have witnessed many a boy getting pretty intense about shampoo and scissors.

A great way to start is by asking your child to think about all the things a beauty shop might need.  Make a list together (if your child can't read, write the word and draw a picture).  Some ideas might be: comb, brush, bows, rubber bands, hair dryer, scissors, curling iron, nail polish, toe separators, towel, hand mirror, squirt bottle, shampoo, dress-up wigs etc.  Next, either use a mirror that can be set on a table top or put a step stool for your child in front of the bathroom mirror. 

 Talk to your child about what happens at a beauty shop, such as hair washing, haircuts, styling, manicures, pedicures, making appointments and payments, etc.  Let your child decide what role they will try first, and try to help them stick to that role until the play is completed.  This will help with their sequencing skills in play by asking them to figure out what happens first, next and last at the beauty shop.  For example, your hair gets washed before the haircut and the styling comes last.

Have fun!  It's okay to ask for silly things like putting on all the bows or even some lovely, blue streaks in your hair.  As long as your child is being safe, let them experiment with your hair.  Don't let vanity get in the way!  However, I do need to give you this warning:

Unless you want an eye-popping, stranger-staring-at-you-in-the-street look, do not trust your child with actual scissors.  Even the best listeners can get carried away in the play when they have scissors in their hands.  Play scissors (you can find them with most play-doh sets) are a must for this play.

Some great vocabulary to use in this play: "Do you have an appointment?"  "Do you want it cut short or just a trim?"  "Is the water too hot?"  "Can I interest you in a beverage before we begin?"  "This is exactly what I wanted!"

Some books to read before or after you play "Beauty Shop:"

Now, go get pretty.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Power of Empathy

Empathy is a pretty powerful thing and is essential for us to function responsibly in today's society.   Empathy is directly related to "theory of mind" which is the capacity to take on another person's perspective.  Without this theory of mind, we could never truly be empathic to another's plight.  Children don't have theory of mind until about 4 years of age, so we can't expect them to understand or relate to another child's or person's feelings until then.  Yet, we can definitely be empathic to our own children's experiences and feelings and also model empathy for them.  In fact, the ability of children to embody different characters in play is one of the first steps in developing theory of mind and empathy.

Just as I am pondering this concept and getting ready to give a presentation on empathy to some fellow teachers at UIC in January, I come across this article in the Chicago Tribune.  It discusses how today's teens are generally more tolerant of others, but less empathic.  Take a read and let me know your thoughts.  If this is true, we have some work to do as teachers and parents.

Most tolerant, but desensitized? Today's teens present a thorny contradiction.

Friday, November 12, 2010

It's not even Thanksgiving!

I know, I know... it's not even Thanksgiving.  But, I know that there are a ton of moms out there already freaking out about what to get their kids this holiday season.  And, if the moms aren't freaking out, they have already received a phone call from at least one relative freaking out and wanting some tips. 

So, I thought that I would do one post a week for the next month of so with some suggestions.  I play for a living and have very strong opinions about what toys are best.  Frankly, I get the best toys at garage sales, but since kids typically like to open new presents, here are some ideas. 

Just please, BEWARE: These toys do not have buttons or speakers and don't make noise.  I know, it's odd in these technologically advanced times to expect our children to use their imaginations to make their own sound effects and move their toys with their own volition.  But, I feel they are up for the challenge.

These toys are all best for kids ages 3 and up and are for symbolic and representational play... you know - it's what the kids call "pretending."

I love Melissa and Doug .  Their toys are fantastic simply because they are simple.  They are also organized into fantastic themes - like "birthday party" or "mailman."  The quality is exceptional and almost everything is either wooden or plush.   Here are some of my favorites:

Awesome castle, complete with a dragon. Plus, it folds up for travel and storage.

I love this barn. It looks great in any playroom and comes with just the right amount of farm animals. The only thing missing is the farmer.

Love this mailbox. It's sturdy and big enough to hold lots of letters and packages.

Here are my favorite play food sets. The cupcakes are especially cool because the set comes with dry erase markers to use like icing to decorate the cupcakes.

Have a child who loves aggressive play? I know quite a few. Helping channel that tenacity through play is a surefire way to keep your child emotionally healthy and regulated in his/her relationships. I have found that dinosaur and pirate play are excellent mediums for this.

Check out these dinosaurs. They are big so that when your child makes them stomp, it really feels like a dinosaur. I also like the additional volcano.

When it comes to pirates, Fisher Price has them covered with this fantastic set.

I also like this pirate set from Matchbox. You can use it in the bathtub and it comes with a hammerhead shark that actually swallows the pirates! You just pull them out of the shark's stomach to get them out. ARRRR!!

Also fun is this treasure chest complete with pirate booty.

I'll post some more ideas next week, but hopefully this will get you started on shopping and keep you out of the stores! I own or have personally played with each of these items, so if you have any questions or comments, let me know!

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Don't be afraid of the mess

As parents, many of us tend to shy away from messy play.  I know I've had many moments of dread with my son when he's asked to get out the play-doh and moon sand or the worst of the worst... when I've heard the question, "Mommy, can we paint a picture?"

But, frankly, we just need to take a deep breath, get out some newspaper and dive in!

Messy play, or what many therapists and teachers out there call "sensory play" is an extremely important thing to explore when it comes to development.  It allows for another modality for your children to discover and find ways to express themselves.  It also isn't uncommon for children to be hesitant with messy play because they don't like to get dirty or the texture of the substance may turn them off.  It is for these children that messy play is most important.  You'll just handle their anxiety and/or aversion with sensitivity - introducing materials slowly, letting them start by just touching it with a spoon or even giving them some rubber gloves to wear while exploring.

So, today's activity is.... making "Goop."  I know.  It sounds disgusting, but don't be scared.  I have found and tried out a ton of recipes, and this is the easiest to clean-up.  All you need is some cornstarch and water.   You can add some food coloring, if you like.

Begin by putting a good amount of cornstarch in a bowl.  Let your child touch the cornstarch on its own - talk about what it feels like and predict how adding water will change how it feels.  Then, slowly add some water little by little.  At the right consistency, the "goop" will be drippy, but not watery.  Your child will be able to pick up a little ball of "goop" and watch it melt before her eyes.   If you don't mind the dye-factor, include your child's choice of color.


Encourage your child to become symbolic with the "goop."  In this play, Buzz Lightyear jumped in the pea soup.

Now, I know this looks like it will be a pain to clean up.  It really isn't.  When the mixture dries, it turns to powder that is easily wiped off clothing and swept up.  To get the toys and materials clean, just rinse and wash.  I would suggest not wearing black, only because, like all white powder on black, it doesn't entirely wipe off without a trace - you'll need to wash it out.

Enjoy your "goop!"

Friday, November 5, 2010

You always wanted to be a veterinarian when you grew up.

Whether those were your aspirations or not, you can't deny that most kids love pretending to help their poor, little pets get better.

My job as a developmental therapist often requires me to visits to preschools in the Chicagoland area.  One such preschool at the First Presbyterian Church in Lake Forest, had a fantastic set-up to play what they called, "Pet Vet."  Many of their ideas can be readily reproduced in your home.  The teachers started by setting up the veterinary office first - before the children arrived - so that the kids could jump right into play with some structures already in place.  The office consisted of a dress-up corner complete with doctor smocks,  a table that held all the doctor tools, a table with an old Mac laptop, telephone and pads of paper, and a bin of animal puppets.  In my opinion, the best part of all of this was two clipboards that had pictures of a dog eye, ear, tail, etc. that the children could use to circle the part of their pet that was hurt, and then they could hand this to the "doctor" when it was their turn.  I made a reproduction here:
This sheet did wonders for the kids in the room.  Many children often love to play doctor, but don't yet have the skills or vocabulary to lengthen and expand the play beyond "my dog is hurt - listen to its heart - give it a shot - it's better."  A sheet likes this gives those children more ideas, more vocabulary and helped them organize these ideas and come up with a plan before entering the rigors of play.  I could go on and on about how it assisted children with language and learning difficulties, but more than anything, it helped those children stay engaged with their peers in symbolic play for longer periods of time. 

If you want to create something in your house similiar to First Presbyterian, don't feel like you have to set up every aspect of the vet office like they did.  You might just have one or two animals, some doctor tools, a phone and that handy dandy sheet.  I personally enjoy these doctor toys, but any will do...

I found some other ideas for props to include in Preschoolers at Play: Building language and literacy through dramatic play a book that is, of course, out of print by Alice Wiggins.  If you can make these happen, add them into your "Pet Vet" repertoire.  Your kids may like going on the hunt for some of these items in your bathroom.  Before you go, help your child think about what else you might need at a vet's office. Here is what Wiggins suggests:

Band-aids, cotton, dry pet food, q-tips, gloves, popsicle sticks for splints, blankets, overturned laundry baskets for cages, dog bones, leashes, money/credit cards, small flashlight, surgical mask

She also suggests modeling phrases for your child that will help with vocabulary acquisition.
"I will look into your dog's ears"  "He may need a vaccine."  "He sure is furry."  "I will take him out of his cage."  "Can you help me with my sick kitten?  She isn't feeling well."  "I am brushing her fur."

All right!  So, go play - right now!

If you would like me to email you my "Pet Vet" sheet please let me know.

For more information on the First Presbyterian Church of Lake Forest Preschool, click here:

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The Post-Halloween Hangup

Any mom will tell you that the worst part of Halloween is all the left over candy just hanging around in your house. It not only calls to your children, but it also calls to us... "M&Ms are over here" "Almond Joy, anyone?" "Excuse me, but have you met Mike and Ike?"

If you are like me, you can't wait for the day when you can just toss it in the garbage and no one will notice. Actually, on second thought, that is a bit wasteful... so why not do what the mom in this article did and do some candy experiments with your kids? You not only can encourage their curiosity, but also get rid of the evil temptation of Halloween candy.

The experiments she discusses are primarily for older kids (like testing for acid in sour candy and doing chromatography), but younger children will love her ideas for mixing colors and melting candy in the microwave.

Click on the link below for the article.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Some books about play...

I know it's hard to find time to read. When I do have the time, I often prefer to find something mindless or at least fiction to take my mind off the chaos of the day. However, I think that it's important to make sure we are continually learning and challenging ourselves, too. So, when you're up for it, here are a few suggestions to learn more about the importance of play and how it promotes literacy and creativity.

This first one was a big inspiration for my family's dedication to turning off our television for a whole year. We turned it off in March and are still going strong!

This was suggested by Carol Westby at her conference.

Here is one specific to how children learn through play.

This book offers 50 symbolic play themes to help get fantasy play started. A great choice for playdates and for those children who need help getting their ideas started. This is also a wonderful way to promote new vocabulary!

300 dramatic play activities!

If you try one or more of them out, let me know what you think!

Friday, October 29, 2010

"The most effective kind of education is that a child should play amongst lovely things." - Plato

Who would of thunk it?  Even Plato knew about the importance of play. 

I cringe everytime I hear about another school program cutting out recess or a preschool program deciding to have an "academic focus." 
I attended a conference yesterday called "The Roots of Literacy: Play and Language" presented by Dr. Carol Westby, a Speech Language Pathologist.  She discussed a variety of research that proves that imaginary play makes kids better readers.  She said that good readers build mental models or representations of the situations described in text, thus allowing for comprehension.  Pretend or imaginary play is the first tool that children use to start creating these mental models that are so necessary in reading. 
It has also been shown that abstract thought, what is used in symbolic play, fuels creativity.  The ability for abstraction not only allows kids to be critical thinkers, but it also allows them to take on other perspectives - a necessary skill for socializing. empathizing and being a conscious global citizen.
I hope to use this blog to give parents new ideas to play with their kids and also inspire them to play more - not just because it's fun for their child - but, because it's necessary and critical for development.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Here we go!!

The purpose of this blog is to give parents new ideas to help them enjoy their children even more.  I will be posting anything that I think would be a great tip for something to do, see or experience with your child.  Some examples are events in the area, play ideas, web links, books, recipes, toys and games. 

Sign up to be a follower of the blog, so that you are updated when a new post is created.  You can choose to either follow publicly (others can see your user name) or privately. 

Feel free to share this blog with your family and friends.  This is not only geared for clients of Larson Learning and Play.  My goal is bring families of all backgrounds and experiences together to share our wonderful and creative ideas with one another.